From the Halifax to 'Hairspray': how Leanne Jones became a star

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The Independent Culture

Less than six months ago, Leanne Jones had a "day job" in a Halifax bank call centre, but she still harboured dreams of making it big on the stage.

Now she is preparing to stand before an audience of hundreds in the West End production of Hairspray after being plucked from obscurity to take the lead. The drama school graduate, who has never had a professional role before, is to launch her career at the Shaftesbury Theatre when the musical opens there on 30 October.

Jones, 22, had been working in the mortgage department of the bank's main London branch in Moorgate since completing her acting course at Mountview Theatre School in Wood End, north London, last year and, apart from two minor productions, she was struggling for a break.

But in May, she went for an audition with Jack O'Brien, the show's American director and a Broadway veteran. Her life was about to change.

Minutes after beginning her audition with a heartfelt rendition of the song, "Good Morning Baltimore", she had moved the director "to tears", earning herself the lead role as Tracy Turnblad in the musical, starring opposite a cross-dressing Michael Ball and Mel Smith as her mother and father.

O'Brien said he was deeply moved by Jones' performance and cast her in the role the next day. "We finally saw Leanne and I said it would be irresponsible of us not to cast that girl – she's a star," he said.

O'Brien, whose directing career includes the New York production of Tom Stoppard's acclaimed Coast of Utopia trilogy and the musical version of The Full Monty, has turned his attentions to making the musical of Hairspray, which is based on John Waters' film of the same name.

The musical is set in 1962, and tells the story of "pleasantly plump" teenager who lives in Baltimore with her unconventional mother, Edna.

She achieves her dream of becoming a regular on the "Corny Collins Dance Show" and starts using her fame to speak out for causes such as racial integration. But in doing so, she elicits the wrath of the show's former star, Amber von Tussle, and Amber's manipulative, pro-segregation parents.

Jones said: "I was getting to the point when I began thinking, 'It's obviously not going to happen'. I had auditioned for various shows and had never got to the end and I was beginning to accept that. The day after the audition, I got a phone call from my agent who told me I'd got it. I was shocked and excited and then I felt sick. I was a wreck."

Until she appeared at the audition, O'Brien and Adam Spiegel, the show's producer, had feared they may have to draft someone in from America due to the difficult nature of the role.

Spiegel said it could arguably be the most testing role in the West End at the moment because the lead actress needed to have a lot of energy. "It's a tremendously difficult part to cast because of the variety of skills the part requires," he said. "Her personality has to be absolutely contagious and she has to be able to drive a huge musical from beginning to end. She's on stage in almost every scene of the show."

Jones said she would be fulfilling a childhood dream by starring opposite Michael Ball. "I've had posters of him on my wall since I was a little girl," she said. She was 11 years old when she was given a soundtrack of Les Miserables featuring Ball in the leading role after which "I was completely hooked", she added.

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